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The big picture of small living; tiny homes at TEDx



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At August's Colorado Springs 2014 Parade of Homes, locally based EcoCabins earned the People's Choice Award for its Quandary model, the first "tiny home" to appear in the annual event. It was real-world affirmation of a fascination that often plays out online, where tiny-home slideshows attract gobs of people — even those unlikely to ever commit to a diminutive dwelling. Voyeurs aren't we all.

Just the idea of tiny homes makes us warm inside; it's like timeless kitten or puppy appeal for an abode. But the movement isn't aiming to be warm and cuddly as much as it's taking aim at excess and waste: a smaller footprint to heat and cool also forces downsizing and more mindful consumption patterns. To many devotees, the homes are as much counterculture as creature-comfort.

Part of that lifestyle rebellion inspired Andrew Morrison, 41, to leave behind a 15-year career as a contractor and builder to become a straw bale and tiny-home mentor. A nearly half-hour tour of his "hOMe" has now surpassed 2.9 million YouTube views. He and his wife Gabriella ditched the majority of their family's possessions to live off-grid in Oregon, and he now consults, teaches courses nationwide and sells how-to materials to fund his more humble existence.

We spoke to him by phone in Winnemucca, Nev., while he was driving to present at TEDx Colorado Springs on Saturday. Here are some excerpts.

Indy: We've been talking about simplifying since Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond, and times like the 1973 energy crisis, when E.F. Schumacher published Small Is Beautiful. But most of us aren't good at it. Does the tiny-home movement show that we're making progress?

Morrison: It definitely shows that some people are. If you look since 1973, the average house size has actually gone up, by 62 percent or something like that. Now 2,600 square feet is the average size. At the same time our household size has dropped, from like 3.5 to 2.6 [people]. It ends up being an average of 1,000 square feet per person now in a household. If nothing else, those of us who are doing it will help bring averages down, and it'll bring awareness to others.

Why is everyone freaking out about tiny homes? Is it Barbie's Dreamhouse syndrome? The same reasons we like snow globes — because they're small and cute?

There's some of that. ... For those of us who are in it and really enjoying it, it's a much deeper reasoning. ... We won't ever have a house payment again. That's a huge freedom. ... It takes like half an hour, and the whole house is clean. Everything's easier. We have less stuff. ... It's a much bigger cause-and-effect and reasoning to get into a tiny house, and that really revolves around simplifying and looking at what matters. We can spend time doing the stuff we want to do, not the stuff that we have to do.

My walls at home are filled with art. I can't imagine my space without it. Do you miss having wall space for art, or anything else?

I think it's one of those things that, you have to look at what's important for you. It may mean a 200-square-foot house isn't viable for you. But you might also find that a 300- or 400-square-foot house would work. And maybe you set up a few walls specifically for artwork, and they rotate through. Maybe you decide it's worth having a small storage unit on your property. ...

For us, we're scuba divers, I'm a musician. ... You can't get four tanks and all the gear and guitars and banjos and mandolins into a tiny house. So we do have a place to store those things. Are we cheating? Maybe.

Is your storage unit on your land or in town?

Well, right now, we actually have both. We're still transitioning; it's a long process. We have a unit in town. Actually two units in town. One is where we're just getting rid of stuff, our old couches and furniture and things we haven't finished selling yet. ... The other is much smaller.

The funny thing about that, the reason we have it, is that we sell DVDs, a four-disc set on how to build a tiny house. And when we place an order, we get so many of them that we have to have a storage unit to store the tiny-house DVDs. ... It's a little ironic.

With all this downsizing and simplifying, it sounds like you still end up with a bunch of stuff outside of the tiny home: your solar array, water well, the storage units, and you go to town to do laundry. Someone from the outside could say, "Wait a minute, these guys didn't really simplify, they're just running around and rearranged things." Does it come down to how you feel?

You hit it on the head by saying, "How do you feel?" ... In our solar shed we've put a washing machine in so we aren't going to town to do laundry anymore. It wasn't that big of a deal even when we were doing that, because we've got things that happen in town. ... We definitely find ourselves busy. The big difference is that ultimately we're busy by choice. ... If we want to stop working, we can stop working. We don't have that huge overhead we used to have.

I'm guessing you don't advocate to tear your house down and build a tiny one in its place. That's not a great use of our existing resources. Are you saying, as we continue to build and do infill and sprawl, that if we were waving our magic wand, tiny homes would compose most of our new structures? Is that how you'd approach the sustainability end of it?

I've always felt that way with straw bale, as well. The best example is, for many years, when we raised our kids, we lived on 100 acres ... in a vinyl-sided plywood box. It was terrible. The reason we lived in it was the house itself was only 10 years old, basically new when we bought the property. It sat on the perfect spot on the land. Our options were to tear it down, which was way too wasteful and totally anti-green. Or move it, which we couldn't afford, or retrofit it. So there were three options, and none were available by cost or choice.

So we lived in the house that was there, and that was the greenest thing we could do. I think in that sense, if someone wanted to live in a tiny house, they could apply for an ancillary dwelling unit permit and put a tiny house in the backyard and live in that and then rent their home to someone else.

What's the average cost to get into a creative home like yours?

The materials cost right around $33,000. The average cost for tiny houses these days is right around $23,000 in materials. You're basically looking at doubling material costs if you're asking someone to build it for you.

Can you take us on a virtual tour of your land and hOMe?

Our property is 5½ acres. We have a big open meadow and a lot of wooded area. The home itself sits on the edge of the meadow. It's horizontal cedar siding, sort of a modern clean line building, very simple, not lots of detailing.

Near it we have our solar array, as you walk on the property, and our wood-burning hot tub. ... We have two cabins which are used for our kids. We have an 18-year-old son and a 14-year-old daughter. Our daughter is homeschooled, so she uses the cabin as a school and sleeping area; the rest of the time she hangs out with us in hOMe. Our son goes to school in Colorado Springs, he's a boarding student at Fountain Valley School. He has his cabin when he's home, so a private space as well. His is a 150-square-foot treehouse, hers is a 120-square-foot platform house — it's built not into a tree, but up in the trees.

Our house, when you come in, is 207 square feet. It has open ceilings, so it's about a 10-foot ceiling. To the left is the bathroom, behind a separate wall. Above that is what we call our tiny-house lounge; it has my guitars up there and a TV for movies. Straight ahead is the couch and sitting area, and to the right of that is our eating and work area. They're folding tables that hinge off the wall, and we use that to eat and as an office. Further to the right is our kitchen. We have a full-size kitchen, with a full-size range, oven, refrigerator and sink, wine rack, and lots of counter space. Above that is our bedroom, our sleeping loft.

Do you ever feel confined, where you feel like you need your own space or time and can't get it because you can't be in another room away from your partner?

I think it's actually the opposite. ...

The story I always tell, is when we first started our downsizing journey, we sold or gave away 90 percent of what we owned. We took a pop-up tent trailer and went to Mexico and lived on the beach for five months. ... At one point my daughter got pissed at me about something, and she went into her room and slammed the curtain. It's like an eighth-inch piece of fabric between me and her ... it took a couple minutes, and she opened it up and we talked about it. ...

It's risky to be honest with your communication, but you have to be willing to do that in a tiny house.

Do you advise people to think about those peripheral aspects of tiny-home culture?

There's very often conversations about, "What is a tiny house?" Is it a 400-square-foot house on a foundation, or is that just a small house? To some extent I think we get hung up in the nomenclature a little bit too much. ... It's all relative I think. It's about creating what works for you and what allows you to downsize as much as possible to where you're enjoying it. ... The design that we came up with is perfect for us. It actually never feels small.

Anything else you want to say about tiny homes?

The summation is similar to what I talk about in my TEDx talk: For people to choose the things that bring them freedom and joy. ... Is sitting in traffic for two hours to get to work at a job I really don't like, wearing clothes that I really don't like so that I can pay for a house that I never spend time in because I'm at work all the time — is that really what you want to do? And then be willing to take the risk of trying something that's outside of the box. ... push through that fear and find a way to align with your passion and bring that freedom and joy to your life, and I think all kinds of doors will open up.


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